Domestic violence coalition seeks 'dominant aggressor' law

Victims of domestic violence end up getting arrested along with an abusive spouse or intimate partner more often in Connecticut than in other states, according to a study released Tuesday by the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

It's an unintended consequence of a mandatory arrest law passed in 1986 that requires police to make an arrest in cases of domestic violence for which they find sufficient evidence — known as probable cause — that an incident occurred.

The coalition, an umbrella agency for the state's 18 domestic violence service agencies, including Safe Futures in New London, is proposing that Connecticut adopt "dominant aggressor" legislation similar to laws in effect in 27 other states. The proposed law, expected to be taken up by the legislature's Judiciary Committee, would give police the discretion to determine who is the primary aggressor. In some cases, both parties still would be arrested and taken away in police cruisers. 

A "dual arrest," as it is called, can discourage a domestic violence victim from seeking further help and result in legal bills, problems at work, confusion for children and other family hardships. The CCADV has been seeking a fix at least since 2004, when a "self defense" exception was added to the mandatory arrest law.  

"We're not blaming the police," Karen Jarmoc, the CCADV executive director, said Tuesday in a phone interview. "Often it can be a he-said, she-said situation. That's the conflict. They're really hard calls to make."

The CCADV study indicates that in 87 out of 106 police agencies, the dual-arrest rate is more than double the national average of 7 percent. That means that both parties in a domestic violence incident are often arrested, even if one of them is actually the victim. The data, provided by the state Department of Emergency Service and Public Protection, shows that there's no corner of the state untouched by this problem, Jarmoc said.

She said the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee have committed to raising the bill during the current session and that the agency worked with various stakeholders to craft the law.

Between 2014 and 2016, 71 percent of the 54,129 domestic violence cases handled by Connecticut state courts involved intimate partners, which includes spouses and other people who are intimately involved, according to figures provided by the Judicial Branch. "Intimate partner" does not refer to other domestic relationships, such as those involving parents and children, siblings or roommates.

Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, said the agency will be holding a roundtable next week with local police chiefs and Jarmoc to get input on the proposed law, which is still being crafted.

A "dominant aggressor" law would require law enforcement agencies to do "a little more digging" when they respond to a domestic violence call, Verano said.

"If I go off on my partner because he was pushing me, pushing me, and I thought he was going to choke me like he had done 20 times before, what the police have to look at is, 'What is the history of this couple? Are there protective orders? How many times have we come to this address?'" Verano said.

Police are already doing some of that work through a statewide Lethality Assessment Program in which officers responding to domestic violence calls ask victims a series of questions to determine if they are at high risk of being killed, and then immediately connect them with a counselor who helps the victim, perhaps by creating a safety plan, finding temporary housing or navigating the legal system.

Not only does being arrested deter a victim from seeking further help, it also empowers the abusers, Verano said.

Often, the victim is arrested for fighting back. Jarmoc said she did an interview with a woman who had been pinned to the ground, punched in the face and choked by her partner. The woman fought to get away, grabbed her infant baby and fled. She called her parents, but when she went to the police station, her face bloody and her glasses broken, she was told, "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to arrest you, too."

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Sarah M. Steere, who prosecutes domestic violence cases in New London Superior Court, said local police have become more sophisticated in handling domestic violence cases, writing detailed reports that note whether it looks like self-defense was used, taking photos of bruises and obtaining medical records.

Dual-arrest figures specific to the local courts were not immediately available, but Steere said it seems to be happening "less and less" that the wrong person is arrested.

"You don't want to have a chilling effect on somebody making a report and getting help," she said.

k.florin@theday.com

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